Nancy Cohen has come a long way since eating Dad’s Oatmeal Cookies in the front window of her father’s grocery store. And though she once had aspirations to become a counselor or therapist and work with the deaf, her father’s contagious work ethic and passion for the market industry reeled her into the family business — Eddie’s of Roland Park.
“You pick up things through osmosis, almost,” said Cohen, president of the grocer.
For over 70 years, the family affair continues to be the foundation of Eddie’s with the third generation, Cohen’s sons, helping to keep their grandfather’s legacy alive. Even in the face of changes and challenges in the industry, the local grocer still stands on its foundational priorities: quality, service and convenience.
“That’s how I was raised. That’s what I understood. And so with my third generation, with my children, that’s what we strive for, is to provide the same things that were important to my father,” Cohen said.
The custom cut meats, in-store bakery, candy department and gift baskets speak to the traditions and qualities of the past.
Grocery stores have small margins and can be hard to run. And while some smaller stores in the Baltimore area have closed recently — including Eddie’s of Mount Vernon in June— Eddie’s of Roland Park spent the last two years investing in renovations of its Roland Avenue store.
The renovations include a remodeled kitchen, modernized production and storage areas, and offices and common spaces for employees. There’s also a new vestibule, outdoor seating and additional windows to welcome more natural light inside. The store hasn’t had a major remodeling since 1995.
The roots of the grocery store start with Victor Cohen, who worked in grocery stores as a teenager and became a manager before he was 20 for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, also known as A&P. He opened Victor’s Meats in 1944 in the Roland Park Shopping Center where Petit Louis Bistro is now.
He purchased an Eddie’s franchise in 1954 from Eddie Levy and moved to 5113 Roland Avenue, where the store is now. At least 26 Eddie’s stores were spread out in Baltimore, but eventually became independently owned.
In 1992, Nancy Cohen opened the second Eddie’s of Roland Park on North Charles Street. She’s grateful for both locations and their longevity, but their success hasn’t come without the need to adapt. New suppliers and vendors, for example, tend to favor stores with multiple locations, and supermarket chains continue to merge. There’s always scale to consider, along with competing against larger chains and figuring out how to overcome their buying power advantage, said Michael Schaffer, Cohen’s son and vice president of Eddie’s of Roland Park. There were times they’d see a competitor selling an item below cost.
But there are also ways for smaller chains to stay in the game.
Victor Cohen told The Baltimore Sun in 1986 that “the way to compete with chain stores is personalized service.”
Schaffer recalls his grandfather knowing every customer’s name and a bit about their background and families. Before automatic doors, an employee would hold the door for customers going in and out. Delivery service has also been a feature at Eddie’s for decades, Cohen said.
Local grocers have to be innovative in their appeal and approaches to keep customers, said one marketing expert.
Focusing on hyperlocalized tastes is one good strategy, said Bobby Zhou, associate professor of marketing with the Robert H. Smith Business School at the University of Maryland. Zhou added that local grocery stores can also build personal relationships with their customers to stand out from larger chains.
“When you go to Walmart and Target, consumers can hardly relate to the employees there, but if you buy stuff from people who are actually from the community, the psychological distance is automatically shortened. You feel good about supporting the community,” Zhou said.
Eddie’s focuses on local products and unique and convenient items Schaffer said. Stroll through the recently renovated store near the Roland Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and one can find mushroom coffee, cornbread crackers, fresh pizza and a variety of breads.
The candy department is a page out of a Willy Wonka book, with gum drops, Sour Patch Kids, chocolate truffles, peanut butter cups, coconut clusters and maple creams.
“We give people unique reasons to come visit,” said Shaffer, who’s been working in the store since he was a teenager.
Kevin Yuan, a Johns Hopkins University student studying biology, has only been to Eddie’s a few times, but he always makes sure to grab the fresh-squeezed orange juice. It’s not uncommon for him to finish it in two days’ time.
For Chris Wulin, a resident in the Patterson Park area, it’s the sandwiches that have kept him coming back for the last 20 years. He tends to get the sandwich of the day and calls ahead to pick it up. One recent special: Eddie’s roasted turkey, coleslaw, tomato, and cucumber on a Kaiser roll. To those that haven’t given Eddie’s a try, Wulin asks “Where have you been?”
Catherine Foy loves the convenience. Eddie’s is a quick walk from her home, which she moved into a little over a year ago.
“I think it’s got a really quaint neighborhood feel,” Foy said.
Though she wouldn’t recommend buying groceries for a large family because it can get costly, she likes to get spur-of-the-moment items. The store’s alcohol selection is also a perk that most grocers don’t have, she said. But they don’t sell it on Sundays. On this day, Foy grabbed flowers, wine and a few other items to host a small birthday dinner.
Some of Foy’s go-to’s are the burger patties (they grind the meat in house), cookies, cheeses and the deli sandwiches. Her neighbors are also obsessed with the premade meals, she said. When Cohen was pregnant with her first son, she knew she didn’t want to cook, and it led her to the “gourmet to-go” meals like lemon linguine and capers, salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, and curried chicken salad.
“You can make other people’s lives easier,” Cohen said of the grocer’s strategy.
Cohen relies more on her sons to run the stores, but admits that she’s constantly shopping for new and fun purchases, like Crostini Tuscan Crackers or Sarabeth’s Strawberry Rhubarb Preserves.
In the next few years, Eddie’s management wants to increase their use of compostable products and continue to push and support local and innovative products, Schaffer said.
They’ll celebrate 80 years of serving the community next year — a milestone Cohen attributes to the source of it all.
“All of this really is my father’s legacy. … it’s been very, very important that we carry on the legacy and the vision that he had for the business,” said Cohen.